Local disaster relief organization responds to hurricane aftermath


The hallways of the Headwaters headquarters in Golden Valley are lined with photos of teams who have assisted with disaster relief all over the globe, starting in New Orleans in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Kristen Miller)

Volunteers and tools needed to help residents rebuild

By Kristen Miller
[email protected]

With boots already on the ground in Houston, Headwaters Relief Organization is gearing up for what is turning out to be its most active and potentially disastrous hurricane season to date.

Headquartered in Golden Valley, the nonprofit formed in 2005 as a grassroots movement in response to Hurricane Katrina. Since then, the organization has developed in its response methods and its volunteer network has continued to grow, allowing it to respond globally as natural disasters and public health crises. Examples globally include the earthquake in 2010 in Haiti, the typhoon in 2015 in the Philippines and the Ebola outbreak. Headwaters also organizes volunteers locally and nationally in the aftermath of flooding, wild fires and tornadoes.

Oftentimes, the nonprofit will continue to provide ongoing services and support even after the clean-up efforts have subsided. An example of the is in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans where a mental health resource center was established.

“Our niche in the disaster field over the long haul has been in mental health support,” said Rebecca Thomley, the organization’s founder and president and CEO of Orion Associates, a management services firm that shares its headquarters.

Headwaters founder and volunteer Rebecca Thomley identifies long-time volunteers with the nonprofit disaster relief organization. (Sun Sailor staff photo by Kristen Miller)

The organization also develops and distributes educational materials, such as children’s books, to help children cope with the disaster and prepare them to respond appropriately in any future event.

In response to Hurricane Harvey, Headwaters organized a first-response team of volunteers in the days after the devastating flooding. Thomley was one of those volunteers who went out on an airboat as part of a rescue mission.

As first response, volunteers are responding to dispatch reports “with an endless lists of people” who needed to be rescued from their homes, Thomley explained.

For example, Thomley was on a boat with a medical team trying to rescue a family trapped in their home, showing a photo of a truck in front of the home that was completely submerged in flood water.

“The water just came so quickly,” Thomley said, explaining many people they rescued didn’t evacuate because they felt they could stay in their homes and wait it out. They also rescued people from apartment buildings.

“The reality of how high the water came, you don’t necessarily have the supplies to stay,” she said, such as food and drinking water.
“[From the residents’ perspective], it’s almost inconceivable where some of this flooding was,” Thomley said.

In the weeks to come as flood waters subside, Headwaters will focus on the clean-up effort, working with homeowners by removing water-damaged items from homes, along with tearing out drywall and flooring and applying mold treatment.

Oftentimes, Headwaters will assist the elderly or those physically unable to do the job themselves.

A Headwaters volunteer stands in the flood waters during a clean up effort in Houston. (Submitted photo)

For someone who has just lost all their home, “it helps the healing process,” said Ashley Emry, Headwaters volunteer. Emry recalled helping with the clean up effort in 2014 in Detroit, noting it took eight hours for a team of seven people just to go through one basement.

Emry, who has been involved in Headwaters for five years, said each trip is eye-opening.

“As a volunteer, you just want to do more. You become connected with the communities you serve,” she said, noting she has a special connection with Oklahoma after cleaning up after devastating tornadoes.

“You hear people’s stories. You feel an impact, because you may be helping one person, but to that one person, that’s their life-changing moment,” she said.

With teams scheduled through October, Headwaters seeks additional volunteers for the months to come in Texas and other areas affected by the hurricanes. Donations of tools for the work crews are also being collected.

People can also sign up to volunteer, donate financially and join the mailing list for updates on future work.

An important thing to note is all donations go to serving someone directly impacted in the relief efforts, Thomley said, adding volunteering to her is a privilege. “You receive far more than you give in volunteering.”

“There’s nothing more powerful than that human connection with someone where it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what your background is, the color of skin, your religion. Reaching out in that moment, there’s nothing more rewarding,” Thomley said.

A list of tools to donate can be found at headwatersrelief.org, along with information on other ways to help with the hurricane disaster relief effort.

Headwaters volunteers Ginny Benson of Brooklyn Park and Dave Comb of Golden Valley work on removing water-logged debris from homes damaged by the recent flooding in Houston. (Submitted photo)